Every time Pope Francis speaks, all hell seems to break loose.
Admittedly, I waiver between finding the Holy Father sharp and witty or sloppy and whimsical. So when he discussed eternal damnation the other day, I was reflexively worried:
“Eternal damnation is not a torture chamber. That’s a description of this second death: it is a death. And those who will not be received in the Kingdom of God, it's because they have not drawn close to the Lord. These are the people who journeyed along their own path, distancing themselves from the Lord and passing in front of the Lord but then choosing to walk away from Him. Eternal damnation is continually distancing oneself from God. It is the worst pain, an unsatisfied heart, a heart that was created to find God but which, out of arrogance and self-confidence, distances itself from God.”
As a Catholic I’ve heard much about the “eternal fires” of hell. And the unquenchable pain that accompanied anyone’s stay in the devil’s playground. Of course, this imagery is incomplete. Hell’s punishment is, as the Holy Father and the Catechism affirm, from one cause: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035)
I do not have the imagination to consider what this punishment means in its entirety. That’s probably because, even though we live in a fallen world awaiting the end times, we still pilgrim through time thanks to the actual graces of Our Lord. In other words, we experience His love and His mercy daily in all the good we receive in life. It’s ironic, however. The good we daily receive from God can mask from us what it means to be separated in eternity from Him.
Here perhaps we can fault Francis for simply saying too little. After all this separation from God, like the Lord Himself, is hidden in our eyes. Indeed, Advent itself is the time of preparing to welcome the ultimate revelation of the God-man hidden before our very eyes precisely as the Child immediately in the Christmas season. This foreshadows the real revelation of God to us at the end of our lives.
Of course, we cannot presume that God’s grace will find us ready. We hope. It gives us pause and fear. For that reason, even the Church never declares any one soul in particular in hell. Although we know many are forever separated from God, His mercy and grace are a mystery beyond comprehension. We must never presume that someone because of the life they horrifically lead, indeed must—or even most likely—is in hell.
Thus, evangelizing must mean something more than scaring the hell out of unbelievers and ourselves. The work of evangelization must entail speaking to the need that each of us has for God. Our restlessness, as Saint Augustine says, that finds rest in only Him. The beginning of evangelization is inviting ourselves and others to dwell in the presence of God. Thus, prayer must be the opposite of hell, since prayer places us in the presence of the Lord.
As Francis went on to say in his audience, the encounter with Christ is really our only hope:
“Hope is what opens our hearts to the encounter with Jesus. This is what awaits us: the encounter with Jesus. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. And He asks us only to be humble and say ‘Lord.’ It’s enough to say that word and He will do the rest.”